Growing up, adults always tell you that “life isn’t fair.” No Columbus Blue Jacket knows that better than Ryan Murray, who finds himself injured—again—during the best season of his career and in a home stretch where the club desperately needs his talent.
Murray has now missed 16 games since leaving the February 18 loss against Tampa Bay, a span that has seen the CBJ go 7-8-1 in his absence. Murray had compiled one goal and 28 assists for an already-career-best 29 points in 56 games, serving as a capable top four defenseman at either end of the ice.
The 25-year-old has traveled a long road to get here. The second overall pick in 2012 has only played one full season since breaking into the league the following season, suffering various injuries to his back, ankle, hand and knee (his current injury is listed as the ubiquitous “upper-body” variety). General manager Jarmo Kekäläinen openly feared what missing that much time during his early years as a pro would affect his growth. Back in 2015 (coming off a season where Murray only played 12 games), he told the Columbus Dispatch, “Both [Murray and Boone Jenner] are young players who need to play as much as possible to continue to develop. I’m worried about Murray in particular. Two out of three seasons, he hasn’t really played. That’s all development time. I think as soon as he gets healthy, he’s got to get back to playing.”
His injuries certainly hurt his career trajectory and he became a sort of whipping boy for fans who expected, not wrongly, a lot more out of the second overall pick. His name frequently surfaced in trade rumors as the Blue Jackets straddled the line between “getting the most of a young bust-adjacent project with talent” and “ holding on for too long until he loses his value.” Ironically, Murray’s name was floated as Columbus looked to trade for Matt Duchene two summers ago:
Not that 2017 is that long ago, but the replies to that tweet show how Murray had a) little perceived value and b) how ready Columbus fans were to be rid of him.
Murray played only 44 games last year due to injury, signed a one-year qualifying offer and offered a reliable, if unremarkable pairing with Markus Nutivaara. This season, he improved on nearly every aspect with his game and forced John Tortorella to successfully experiment putting him together with Seth Jones before he got hurt.
His 2017-18 is shown on the left and this season is on the right. You can click to embiggen, but even a quick glance shows marked improvement in every single category. He also improved the team’s 5-on-5 offense, improving the group’s threat by 8 percent during his 987 minutes of ice time.
Last year, the offense functioned worse with him on the ice—now it’s the opposite. His “With or Without You” chart bears that out as well on an individual level:
The Columbus Blue Jackets have been an average group this season on the whole, and you can see the large clump hovering smack in the middle. What’s striking here is the clear line of red squares—players without Murray—who show up to the right of those squares in black when they’re sharing the ice with him, including frequent defensive partner Markus Nutivaara. (That information courtesy of the indispensable hockeyviz.com).
Murray has also made an appearance on Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) chart. You can find a great explainer on what GAR is at our friends Pension Plan Puppets, but it’s essentially “a one size fits all number that encapsulates how valuable an individual player is in terms of on-ice play, relative to a ‘replacement level’ player” that also attempts to contextualize a player’s usage, competition, teammates and more.
You can see that Ryan Murray cracks the top 30 of the league’s defensemen in 2018-19, joining some pretty heady company (oh, hey, David Savard, right under Mark Giordano).
Murray has markedly improved this season and provided a steady, reliable presence on the back end. His play allowed Tortorella to tinker with pairings and afford to scratch either Dean Kukan or Scott Harrington every night. Do you trust the trio of Harringon, Kukan and Adam McQuiad to help knock off Tampa in the first round? You don’t have to imagine how Murray’s presence over the last 16 games would’ve stabilized the defensive corps at a time where the offense has foundered. You can see it in the visualizations above.
All of this isn’t to say that Murray’s one of the league’s best defensemen and the CBJ should open the vault to him as he becomes a restricted free agent after this season. It’s more that in the most important year of Murray’s career, it’s a real shame that he received another unwelcome reminder of how unfair life—and hockey—can be.